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Amid crisis, Greeks seek something more than money: lost pride (+video)

Many Greeks feel a sense of humiliation from the constant austerity demands by its creditors and the damage they have inflicted on the national psyche. But others warn that pride will not solve Greece's woes.

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    Thousands of anti-austerity demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building in Athens to show their support to the Greek government in their negotiations with international creditors.
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The Greek prime minister’s decision to hold a referendum on the terms of a bailout extension has plunged much of Greece and Europe into uncertainty.

But Argyro Papastamatiou, a mother of two, says that it has had the reverse effect on her.

“Finally, I feel free. I feel like a dancer of Zalongo,” she says, referring to the women of the Souliote War in 1803, who instead of surrendering to the enemy danced one by one towards a cliff, throwing their children off and themselves afterwards.

Ms. Papastamatiou admits that an era of great uncertainty lies ahead. The decision by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras – to end negotiations with creditors to extend a bailout program that expires tomorrow – has put the country on what many say is the most unstable footing Greece has had in five years of crisis and discontent. But her desire to restore a sense of pride outweighs her fear of the next step.

And she is not alone. While Greeks disagree with what has pushed the country to the brink – some blame European leaders and creditors, others Mr. Tsipras, and others the entire political system – all of Greece is feeling a sense of humiliation. From the working class neighborhoods near Athens’ port to the leafy, wealthy suburbs in the mountains above the capital, a yearning for lost pride is coursing through the country, informing Greek thinking as citizens wade through a crisis that has dominated their lives for the past five years and could be reaching its climax.

Nicolas Demertzis, the director of the National Center for Social Research in Athens, says this is dangerous, and he blames both sides. “Over the past five years, and especially the last five months, we are seeing the triumph of the effective politics of emotion, the mobilization of collective pride,” he says. “But this mobilization is not premised on solid ground.”

Closed banks, empty ATMs

Greece entered into uncharted territory over the weekend, after Tsipras, who was elected in January on an anti-austerity pledge, halted negotiations between Greece and its creditors.

They had been scrambling to try to help Greece avoid a default Tuesday, when the country owes 1.6 billion euros ($1.78 billion) to the International Monetary Fund. The two sides came to an impasse, as Tsipras argued that European insistence to cut pensions further and raise additional taxes – after five years of cuts – would keep the country mired in economic crisis. It’s a position that many economists in and outside of Greece have sided with.

Tsipras stunned the international community, however, by abruptly calling for a referendum next Sunday to ask Greeks if they agree to the deal. He wanted an extension in the meantime, but creditors refused, leading to Greece's implementation of capital controls Monday. Banks were shuttered and the stock exchange didn’t open, as the country attempts to avert financial collapse. Lines at ATMs were either non-existent – because the machines were out of cash – or anxiously unbearable today. Gas stations and supermarkets were busy as uncertainty is leading Greeks to stock up.

European Union leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said they want Greece to stay in the currency union – but not at any cost. Some two-thirds of Greek citizens have said in polls that they too wish to remain in the eurozone – but many of them, like Nikos Triantafillidis, say it's not worth everything.

'A matter of pride'

Outside Saint Sostis church in Athens, on the site of a battle between Greeks and Turks in 1827, Mr. Triantafillidis says he’d prefer to be in the euro. But he says the more important question beyond the euro or the drachma is for Greece to get into a position where it no longer needs to ask for money from anyone. “It’s a matter of pride,” he says. “It’s to get back face to the rest of the world.”

Such sentiments have deep historic roots: from ancient Greece, to the war of independence in the 1820s and '30s, to the resistance against Axis occupation in World War II.

Mr. Demertzis says Greeks have never felt so dependent on foreign assistance, and that discomfort has been easily manipulated by politicians. But he calls it “rubbish rhetoric” because it offers no solutions: no strong economy, effective public administration, or competent civil society and elites. The referendum is an especially dangerous moment, he says, because while it’s easy to mobilize, it leaves no clear outcome. “You must be proud not just of your historical record but of your current output.”

In the wealthy community of Kifissia, at an old-fashioned café, Dimitrisk (who declined to give his last name) says that Tsipras’s bad governance has put Greece’s position in the eurozone at risk. “He is burdening the people,” Dimitrisk says, reading a conservative newspaper on Sunday over coffee. 

But Demertzis says this is only one side of the story. He is equally critical of the European Union, which he says has become neo-liberal and is seeking to serve its own interests. He blames the EU for also manipulating fear, in this case the fear of “exclusion” from the eurozone, even though it’s not clear how that would translate into Greek economic reality.

Uncertainty

A sense of unknown is fueling ATM and supermarket lines and hanging over the air in Athens. The priest at St. Sostis church, Ioannis Patitsas, says that while he often has broached the crisis at sermons, he didn’t on Sunday because the political situation and target is moving so fast. “We are confused too,” he says.

Syntagma Square, the heart of civic protest in Athens, was quiet on Sunday and Monday, as people seem to walk around with “what’s next” on their minds – although many marches are planned for coming days.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker appealed to Greeks today to vote “yes” for the extension bailout plan in their planned referendum on Sunday. "I very much like the Greeks, and I'd say to them 'You should not commit suicide because you are afraid of death.’”

But Papastamatiou would interpret a vote for “no” differently. It might be political suicide, she says, but it’s better than the alternative. “They don’t understand us. They are just trying to push us out,” she says, returning to the historic reference of Zalongo. “I prefer to just take my children and be alone. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to stay with you.”

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